Dorothy Counts: The teenager who challenged the segregation, 1957

dorothy counts iconic photograph

Dorothy Counts, 15, is taunted and harassed by white students as she makes her way from Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Douglas Martin).

Dorothy Counts made national news in September 1957, when at the age of 15, she became one of the first and, at the time, the only black student to enroll in the newly desegregated Harry Harding High School in Charlotte (North Carolina). This came nearly three years after the Supreme Court ruled public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.

Counts was dropped off on her first day of school by her father, along with their family friend Edwin Thompkins. As their car was blocked from going closer to the front entrance, Edwin offered to escort Counts to the front of the school while her father parked the car. As she got out of the car to head down the hill, her father told her, “Hold your head high. You are inferior to no one.”

There were roughly 200 to 300 people in the hostile crowd mostly students and parents who followed her and screamed racial epithets at her. The crowd taunted her, spit on her, and pelted her with sticks and pebbles.

Unafraid, Dorothy walked by without reacting but told the press later that many people threw rocks at her—most of which landed in front of her feet—and that students formed walls but parted ways at the last instant to allow her to walk past.

Photographer Douglas Martin won the 1957 World Press Photo of the Year with an image of Counts being mocked by a crowd on her first day of school (the first image above).

dorothy counts iconic photograph

Counts is escorted from school, followed by a crowd of 100 jeering students.

After entering the building, she went into the auditorium to sit with her class. She was met with the same harassment that occurred outside the school building, constantly hearing racial slurs shouted at her. She said that no adults assisted or protected her during this time.

She mentioned that after going to her homeroom to receive her books and schedule, she was ignored. After the school day around noon, her parents asked if she wanted to continue going to Harry Harding High School. Counts said that she wanted to go back because she hoped to befriend her classmates. 

Dorothy fell ill the following day. With a fever and aching throat, she stayed home from school that Friday, but returned on Monday. After returning to school, there wasn’t a crowd present outside the school.

However, students and faculty were shocked at her return and proceeded to harass the fifteen-year-old girl. While in class she was placed at the back of the classroom and was ignored by her teacher.

dorothy counts iconic photograph

Counts walks to school on her first day, amid jeers from other students.

On Tuesday, during lunch, a group of boys circled her and spat in her food. She proceeded to go outside and met another new student who was part of her homeroom class who talked to Counts about being new to Charlotte and the school.

When Counts returned home she told her parents that she felt better that she made a friend, and had someone to talk to. After her experience during her lunch period, Counts encouraged her parents to pick her up during her lunch period so that she could eat.

On Wednesday, Counts saw the young girl in the hallway and the young girl proceeded to ignore Counts and hung her head. During her lunch period that day, a blackboard eraser was thrown at her and landed on the back of her head.

As she proceeded to go outside and meet her oldest brother for lunch, she saw a crowd surrounding the family car, and the back windows were shattered. Counts says this was the first time she was afraid because now her family was being attacked.

dorothy counts iconic photographAfter these four days of harassment that threatened her safety, her parents withdrew her from the school, but the images of Dorothy being verbally assaulted by her white classmates were seen around the world.

Counts and her family moved to Philadelphia, where the teenager finished her high school education at an integrated school. She returned to Charlotte, earned a degree from Johnson C. Smith University, and embarked on a career as a preschool teacher and education advocate.

She remained in Charlotte and continuously did non-profit work with children who came from low-income families.
dorothy counts iconic photograph

dorothy counts iconic photograph

She was met by hostile crowds of students and adult members of the local White Citizen Council who taunted her, spit on her, and pelted her with sticks and pebbles.

dorothy counts iconic photograph

dorothy counts iconic photograph

dorothy counts iconic photograph

Counts is interviewed by a reporter after pulling out of Harding High School.. (Photo by Bob Shutz).

dorothy counts iconic photograph

Counts and her father, Rev. H.L. Counts, are interviewed at home after her withdrawal from Harding High School. (Photo by Charlotte Observer).

dorothy counts iconic photograph

Dorothy Counts-Scoggins with Charlotte students. (Photo by Charlotte Observer).

In 2006, Counts-Scoggins received an email from a man named Woody Cooper. He had admitted to being one of the boys in the famous picture and wanted to apologize.

They met up for lunch where Cooper asked her to forgive him and she responded by saying, “I forgave you a long time ago, this is opportunity to do something for our children and grandchildren.” They agreed to share their story and from there, did many interviews and speaking engagements together.

(Photo credit: Douglas Martin, The Charlotte News / The Charlotte Observer / Wikimedia Commons / Getty Images / AP / Britannica).